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Monday, October 29, 2007


I'm going to describe some combinations of image and melody to you, and I want you to name to yourself where they come from. I'll bet you can get most, if not all of these. Ready? Okay.

Amidst macho-sounding guitar licks, the map of the Ponderosa Ranch catches fire and burns away to reveal the Cartwright brothers and their father riding up on horseback in a line abreast.

Rob Petrie steps into his suburban living room to a playful melody and finds his wife, son, and co-workers waiting for him. At their warm greeting, he comes in to join them and, in a spectacular pratfall, trips over the Ottoman. Or, with a nimble side-step, he misses the Ottoman. Or, on rare occasions, he misses the Ottoman and stumbles on the rug.

There is a shocking sting of music, then the screen goes black except for a pulsating white dot, and a voice says, "There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. WE are controlling transmission..."

A government agent parks his car in front of an office building and gets out. Inside the building, he passes through a long corridor and an elaborate series of armored doors until he comes to a phone booth, enters it, dials a number, and drops through a trap door.

The name of the star of the series spreads up and down the screen. Then, accompanied by a Sonny Curtis vocal, we see a montage of the life of a young career woman, ending with a shot of her spinning round in the streets of downtown Minneapolis, smiling, celebrating her independence, and tossing her hat in the air. Sonny Curtis assures us that she "might just make it after all".

A ride across the Brooklyn Bridge is set to melancholy-sounding Bob James music.

The Huxtable family dances. It may be to the vocalizations of Bobby McFerrin, or in a tropical number with a symphony orchestra, or in an homage to the Apollo Theatre, but Claire and Sondra are gorgeous and it's fun to watch every week.

A lone moose wanders through the streets of Cicely, Alaska, accompanied by an off-camera harmonica.

An animated sequence is narrated by the jazz vocal stylings of Ann Hampton Calloway, who sings about a girl who "was working in a bridal shop in Flushing, Queens, till her boyfriend kicked her out in one of those crushing scenes/What was she to do, where was she to go, she was out on her fanny..."

If you're as hip to popular culture as I think you are, you have just identified and played in your mind the opening title sequences and theme songs of Bonanza, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Outer Limits, Get Smart, Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi, The Cosby Show, Northern Exposure, and The Nanny. Please tell me you got at least most of those, or you're on the wrong Blog! This brings me to the second in my series of Pet Peeves. Pet Peeve #2 is the disappearance of theme songs and title sequences from today's television. It is becoming a cultural frustration.

A few weeks back I praised today's television for its highly creative and innovative content, and I still think that's true. But there are some producers out there that I would like to smack upside the head for perpetually doing shows without opening title sequences and proper theme songs! It is just wrong! As I write this, I have just watched this week's episode of one of my very favorite series, the brilliant Desperate Housewives. We are about a month into the fourth season and we haven't seen the complete opening title or heard the opening theme once since it started. And Desperate Housewives has one of the all-time best openings, a montage of animations of famous works of art depicting the foibles and travails of women from the Book of Genesis to Andy Warhol, set to a bouncy, playful Danny Elfman composition. Part of the fun of watching Housewives is watching the title and listening to the theme--when they bother to run the damn thing! Marc Cherry (creator of the series), where is your show's theme?

A series that I've grown to love even more than Housewives is Heroes. This show should have an opening theme and title that we can mentally play the rest of the week when we're not watching the show. Instead, all we get is a little trilling of music and a graphic of a solar eclipse. Heroes is a classic in the making. It should open with music and imagery that cements the show that much more strongly in popular culture. But instead...a little trilling and a logo. That's not good enough.

My favorite new series this season is Pushing Daisies, the most inventive and charming show to come along in many a year. I think you have to go all the way back to Beauty and the Beast to find another show as unique and romantic as this. Pushing Daisies, too, should have a theme and a title sequence to "bookmark" its place in public consciousness and TV history. Instead, we just get a bar of music and an animation of the title spelled out in blooming flowers. Again, that's not good enough.

Think about it this way: Would you enjoy books and magazines as much if they were published without covers? Isn't the art or photography on the cover of an album--or a CD--a part of the pleasure you take from it? And good grief, comic books without covers? Unthinkable! (Though I wish certain comic book companies out there would more consistently have covers that illustrate the content of the story--but that should probably be a separate Peeve.) Well, when TV producers give you programs without proper opening titles and theme songs, that's basically what they're giving you: a naked comic book, a coverless book or magazine, a CD with no liner art. It's culturally wrong, aesthetically ugly.

And as a sub-complaint on this Peeve, I should also vent about the truly hideous and now almost universal practice of scrunching up the ending titles and credits of shows into one side or the bottom of the screen and turning the closing of a program into a promo for the next week's episode, or another show entirely. (And then they whip the credits by so fast that you can't read them and find out the name of this week's hot-looking guest-star actor who played some minor role, and you either have to tape the credits and play them in slow motion or look up the episode online.) Promos are supposed to be a completely separate thing, not an intrusion on what's supposed to be the closing theme and credits! This is truly maddening! What I've heard is that this is done because networks are afraid that you won't sit still for closing titles because you have a remote and can zap away to another channel and someone else's show while the ending theme is playing. Frankly, that's an insult. It implies that I have no attention span and no viewer loyalty and can't be bothered to watch an entire program. I don't watch TV that way; I never have, remotes notwithstanding. I like having a show end with a proper closing, and I actually will watch and listen to it--if they give me one!

Theme songs get us in the mood for what we're about to see at the beginning, and they give us a chance to savor a program we've enjoyed at the end. They are, in effect, the overtures, curtain calls, and Playbills of television. And they are becoming an endangered and vanishing tradition, one that ought to be preserved. This is especially true of shows for which the title is an essential part of the "ritual" of watching the program. The best example of this would be The Outer Limits with its Control Voice takeover. Themes and titles are also a part of a cultural language we all share. I started by describing some famous series openings for a reason. They are a kind of common denominator, a cultural touchstone and shorthand shared by diverse people in all walks of life. People may have a hundred different backgrounds, they may have innumerable differences of nationality and ethnicity and religion and economics and lifestyle--but people from the beaches of Honolulu to the brownstones of Harlem know the theme and title imagery for Hawaii Five-O. Who's going to know the opening montage and theme music for Pushing Daisies when there isn't any to know?

TV is becoming a themeless medium. It's another symptom of executives underestimating our mentality. They're afraid we won't buy this advertiser's product or that advertiser's service because we don't have the patience to watch shows formatted correctly and will zap a theme song. Not everyone does that. I want to hear the little story about the man named Jed, the poor mountaineer who barely kept his family fed, and then one day he was shootin' at some food, and up from the ground came a bubblin' crude. "Oil, that is. Black Gold. Texas Tea." It wouldn't have been The Beverly Hillbillies without it. I want Rod Serling to beckon me into his Twilight Zone; I don't want to be just plopped down into it without an intro. And I want to see the mysterious series of empty places from which people have disappeared and hear the finger-popping soft rock tune that starts up an episode of The 4400. I want covers on my comics and magazines and books, I want artwork in the jewel boxes of my CDs, and I want theme songs and title montages on my TV shows. The one show that gets a pass for not having a traditional opening is Lost. The stark, chalky-white logo floating across the black screen with the ominous-sounding chord playing behind it is perfect as it is. But Lost is the one exception; otherwise I want a theme. More and more today, however, I'm not getting it. I'm looking at you, Supernatural: You're a great show and I love watching the adventures of the Winchester brothers, gruesome as they sometimes are. And I'm looking at you, Dirty Sexy Money: Your story is as entertaining as your name is embarrassing. And I'm looking at you, Heroes: I think you're a work of genius. But you all need to get yourselves some damn theme songs and proper title sequences!

And that is my number-one cultural and artistic Pet Peeve.


  1. What about the 53rd AiRescue helicopters coming over the Malibu mountains to Johnny Mandel's "Suicide Is Painless"?, or a garage door flying open with scores of beat up police cars flying out into the streets of a particularly ugly, yet unnamed city to Mike Post music? How about that punchy Neil Hefti jazz tinkling away as two pretty boys jaunt along the highway in a brand new '62 Corvette? Classics all!!! They don't make 'em like that anymore for sure!

  2. MASH, Hill Street Blues, and Route 66--classics all!

  3. Okay, Joe let's see how good you are at these:
    "In 1972, a crack commando unit was...."
    "That's a GOOD deal?!?"
    "Another Challenge for..."
    "A shadowy flight into the world of a man who does not exist"
    "The things they say and the things they do, are A-OK with me if I can do them too!"

  4. Wow! Well, I suspect the first one may be The A-Team. Number 4 is definitely Knight Rider. I want to say Number 1 is Let's Make a Deal, but something tells me no. And the last one has the ring of something from children's TV, but I can't quite place it. Okay, enlighten me.

  5. 1. A-Team
    2. "Alias Smith and Jones"-great sarcastic, "deconstruction" western even though the lead killed himself and they replaced him with the series narrator!
    3. Green Hornet"
    4. "Knight Rider"
    5. "Delta House"- a show so bad, I'm surprised Fox hasn't revived it!

  6. Ah-ha! I remember Alias Smith & Jones. It was Pete Duell who took his own life, right? A sad one, that.

    As a super-hero fan, I would have gotten The Green Hornet if the series had been syndicated widely enough, or if the thing were on DVD. A lost piece of history, there.

  7. Pete Deuel was a fine actor and a great guy. He was apparently distraught over losing the election for the presidency of the SAG. It's too bad, society's loss as he probably would have gone on to other elected offices in public services ala' Reagan-only on the right side of the issues. Shame anyway.